How Silly Putty Works

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Silly Putty Properties

The original Silly Putty didn't look very exciting. It arrived in an egg and fell out of its shell like a pink blob. The egg had no significance except that Peter Hodgson began selling his product in the weeks leading up to the Easter holiday. It even came delivered in dozen-pack cardboard egg cartons. But the egg quickly became part of Silly Putty's brand, and Hodgson decided to keep the unique packaging long after the first Easter selling season had come and gone.

When you removed the putty from the egg and began to handle it, you saw its peculiar properties immediately: It stretched like taffy, yet broke into pieces if you struck it sharply. You could form it into shapes, like Play-Doh, but unlike its modeling-compound cousin, which held a pose indefinitely, Silly Putty flowed in slow motion. Stick it on the side of a filing cabinet, for example, and it would run down the side slowly, taking weeks -- even months -- to respond to gravity's downward pull. Roll it into a ball and throw it at the ground, and it would bounce 25 percent higher than rubber [source: National Toy Hall of Fame].

In early marketing efforts, Hodgson summed up Silly Putty's enigmatic properties by describing the material as a "solid liquid" [source: Crayola]. Interestingly, he didn't think these qualities would attract kids. In fact, Hodgson saw his product as a purely adult diversion.

"It means five minutes of escape from neurosis," he said in the 1950 article for The New Yorker. "It means not having to worry about Korea or family difficulties. And it appeals to people of superior intellect; the inherent ridiculousness of the material acts as an emotional release to hard-pressed adults."

The official patent document echoed this sentiment by proposing the following practical uses: relieving stress by enabling patients in need of hand therapy to squeeze and manipulate the putty; making impressions of newsprint to relieve boredom; cleaning typewriter keys; blocking low-frequency sounds and sealing vacuum joints.

It didn't take long for kids to see what adults were playing with and to sneak some covert samples. And luckily for everyone, one of Silly Putty's other properties -- nontoxicity -- meant that no one had to worry about accidental poisoning. By 1955, the market flipped, and Silly Putty sales to children overtook sales to adults [source: Crayola]. Eventually, chemistry teachers began to take notice and started teaching the science of Silly Putty. We'll cover some of that science in the next section.